What with the whole skin transplant element of Almodóvar’s latest, it was no great surprise that in his capacity as Guest Artistic Director of this year’s AFI Festival, he should pick as one of his personal screening choices, the wonderful medical horror film Eyes Without A Face.
It is a most unusual film, in story, tone and the inclusion of a remarkably unsettling face transplant – in part for the slow, tense, medical precision with which it is presented and conducted – which must have been goodness-knows how shocking in 1960 when the film was released.
The director, Georges Franju, has remained a marginal figure in film history, despite being a pal of Henri Langlois and having a hand in setting up the Cinémathèque française, directing a highly acclaimed (and suppressed) slaughter-house documentary short, Le sang des bêtes in 1949, and becoming a key figure on the festival circuit with piercing features like Le tête contre les murs (1959) and Thomas l’imposteur (1965). But he remains best – indeed, frequently only – known for his masterpiece, Les yeux sans visage, infusing with a melancholic poetry the dime-store story of a renowned doctor whose daughter has lost her face in a car wreck, and whose repeated attempts at transplanting her a new one are doomed to failure.
The doctor is aided by a devoted former patient, Louise, played by Alida Valli, an Igor in pearls, whose lifeworn face has lost the freshness of The Third Man, alternately registering motherly kindness as she ensnares fresh victims, dispassionate resolution as she lights a cigarette in preparation to pounce, and the sadness of a deep, subtle and not unrecognized insanity. The doctor too acknowledges the wrongness of what he is doing for his daughter’s sake, and Pierre Brasseur’s doleful mien contributes a great deal to the film’s tragic power. But its aching heart is Edith Scob as Christiane, floating like a ghostly doll through the passageways of the chateau in her striking triangular dressing gowns, prettily tied to expose long, stick-like arms, in her plain white mask, eerily immobile and revealing only her giant, mournful eyes. It is she who raises the film to the poetry for which it is renowned, as though in a serene, sleepwalking trance, assuaging her bottomless sorrow by transforming into an ethereal angel of freedom for the innocent.
Music and photography contribute too, opening the film with Maurice Jarre’s eerie carnival theme over headlights flashing sinister across road-lining trees; by the end the melody has resolved itself into a lyrical minor-key lament of acute bittersweetness, and the shadow heavy photography follows Christiane deep into the moonlit woods surrounded by white doves, an image both inexplicable and movingly expressive of release, and unburdening passage to another world.
The melancholy, hermetic atmosphere of the chateau is counterpointed by scenes of police procedural, as two amusingly stock cops investigate the missing girls. Their work mirrors the trial and error of the doctor’s, but they accept their failures with steadfast, professional resignation, because of course for them it is not personal. The film could have dispensed with them entirely, in fact, relying for suspense solely on the doctor’s efforts, or Valli’s disposing of bodies like a gangster in her shiny black mac; but the contrast only heightens the poetic atmosphere of the chateau, with its unsettling chorus of barking dogs and dark corridors, and Scob’s quivering excess of feeling.
More information on Guest Artistic Director Pedro Almodóvar at AFI FEST 2011: Guest Artistic Director Selections